There is no scientific way to prove it, but Al Barlow may very well be the happiest man on the face of this big ol' goofy world. You think this when you see him from across a room, when you listen to any of his songs live or on your home stereo, even when heís just a big, sunny East Texas voice twanging on the other end of a phone line. Any way you encounter him, Al Barlow is pure, unadulterated and relentless Happy personified. And he knows it.
"Iíve never met anybody in my life that I would consider a happier person," Barlow readily concedes. "Iíve met a lot of happy folks but I donít know anybody more blessed than me. Iíve had my share of heartaches and grief, but Iím not gonna let that part of life dominate me. But not only am I gonna be happy, Iím gonna make damn sure that I try to make everybody else happy that I come in contact with."
He chuckles. "Itís just one of my mental problems."
Who, you may ask yourself, is this mental, happy man? Heís a 46 year-old, married father of two grown daughters. Heís a twenty-seven-year veteran with the Southwestern Bell telephone company (customer service), a loyal employee and dues-paying union member. And heís one of the best not to mention the funniest -- American singer-songwriters youíve likely never heard. Youíve certainly never heard songs quite like his before: quirky, mischievous little ditties about matchbooks and empty peanut butter jars and fishing and nosy co-workers that come on silly but rarely go on their merry way without goosing the heart by surprise. And Al Barlowís been writing them his entire life.
"I donít remember a time when I wasnít making up a little song of some kind," he says. "I remember I was a little kid and how surprised my mother would be whenever I would come in and say ĎI wrote this poem I want you to hear.í I just kept on doing it, because something would come to me and I just had to put it down in writing. And it was fun."
The only time the happy songs stopped coming to Barlow was during a rough stretch in his teens, after the suicide of his mother threw him into a five-year depression. It wasn't until a cousin fresh from a tour of duty in Vietnam helped him put his sadness in perspective that he snapped out of it. "He helped me realize that I donít have to be sad, that other people have it worse, and that maybe I could use my experience with tragedy to help somebody else."
The songs came back, but Barlow never got around to singing them for anyone but his extended family until the phone company transferred him from Pasadena, TX to San Antonio sixteen years ago. Barlow moved his family to nearby New Braunfels in the Texas Hill Country, and shortly thereafter a fortuitous, uncharacteristic visit to a songwriterís circle at Cheatam Street Warehouse in neighboring San Marcos sealed his fate. His songs were a hit, he went back a second time, and next thing he knew, he was a Hill Country sensation. His picture was in the local papers. Fellow Texas singer-songwriters Robert Earl Keen and Terri Hendrix began singing his praises and sharing their crowds with him, with Keen memorably once personally asking his rabid fans to shut up and listen to Barlowís songs. His songs are now on the radio, both locally and in locales as far flung as Alaska, and theyíre in the homes of his own growing family of fans, preserved for the ages on a trio of independently released, homespun Texas classics: The Original Al Barlow, The Adventures of Al Barlow and now the epic At Home With Al Barlow.
Think of the last produced by Lloyd Maines and recorded live before a small gathering of family and friends not at Alís home but rather at his sisterís right across the street -- as Al Barlowís Greatest Hits. Itís just Al, his guitar and two dozen of his best songs, some new ("The Peanut Butter Jar"), lots of oldies but goodies ("I Once Was a Seed," "Cypress Creek Elixer") and at least one bonafide Al Barlow anthem, the blue collar workiní manís battle cry, "Painting Stripes on the Highway." And in keeping with Barlowís mission in life, every one of Ďem will cheer you up, except for the occasional curveball like "Hunting Squirrels," which might make you cry, and the poignant "Col. Travisí Slave," which will change the way you remember the Alamo for the rest of your life.
As for Al Barlow, heís just counting the days down to two yearsí worth until he can retire from the phone company and take up his real passion full-time. "Iím really not retiring in the truest sense of the word because Iím certainly not retiring from what I love to do best, and thatís entertaining," says the guy whoís still got the check stub from his first paying music gig in his "Al Barlow Museum" in a front room of his house. "I donít care about being a rich, famous, top of the charts guy. I just wanna be able to eke out a living by singing and making CDs and entertaining. Thatís just something Iíve loved to do ever sense I was a little kid. Itís part of who I am. Thereís nothing that cheers me up more than cheering up somebody else."
Consider it a done deal.
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